MAVEN spacecraft is on its way to Mars

The MAVEN spacecraft is launched on Nov. 18, 2013 for a 10-month journey to Mars. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The MAVEN spacecraft is launched on November 18, 2013 for a 10-month journey to Mars. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Only a couple of weeks after India launched its first-ever mission to Mars, NASA has also just sent another probe to the Red Planet. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft was successfully launched yesterday, November 18th, at 1:28 pm EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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Searching for life in Europa’s ocean – with a tiny submarine

Artist's conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters. Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University
Artist’s conception of DADU exploring ice-covered waters.
Credit: Jonas Jonsson / Angstrom Space Technology Centre of Uppsala University

For decades, Jupiter’s moon Europa has been the focus of fascination and debate. Why? Because it has a global ocean – a deep, salty ocean similar to those on Earth, except that in Europa’s case it is always covered by a crust of ice. Speculation has grown that there could be life of some kind in that alien watery darkness, and now there is a new proposal for how to look for it – a tiny submarine!

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New evidence from Hubble Space Telescope for exoplanet that ‘shouldn’t be there’

Hubble image and illustration showing the gap in the planetary disk surrounding TW Hydrae. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Debes (STScI), H. Jang-Condell (University of Wyoming), A. Weinberger (Carnegie Institution of Washington), A. Roberge (Goddard Space Flight Center), G. Schneider (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), and A. Feild (STScI/AURA)
Hubble image and illustration showing the gap in the planetary disk surrounding TW Hydrae.
Click for larger version. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Debes (STScI), H. Jang-Condell (University of Wyoming), A. Weinberger (Carnegie Institution of Washington), A. Roberge (Goddard Space Flight Center), G. Schneider (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), A. Feild (STScI/AURA)

So far, thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates have been found orbiting other stars. As well, astronomers have seen some exoplanets still in the process of formation, providing clues as to how our own solar system came to be. One of these recent “planet-under-construction” findings however is challenging current theories on planetary formation – it’s a planet which “shouldn’t be there” according to conventional wisdom.

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Martian meteorite contains clay with chemical needed for life

Electron microscope image of some of the clay veins in the Martian meteorite MIL 090030, which contain boron. Credit: University of Hawaii at Manoa NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI)
Electron microscope image of some of the clay veins in the Martian meteorite MIL 090030, which contain boron. Credit: University of Hawaii at Manoa NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI)

The many orbiters, landers and rovers have, and continue to, send back an increasing wealth of information about Mars. Sometimes though, we are lucky enought to have a piece of Mars come to us instead. A bunch of Martian meteorites have been found over the years, in places like Antarctica. They offer a unique, hands-on peek into the geological history of the Red Planet. Now, one of them has yielded more clues to the possibility of life having started there, it was reported on June 11, 2013.

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Scientists confirm Curiosity rover’s discovery of ancient Martian streambed

One of the conglomerate rock outcrops, called Hottah, which contains embedded streambed gravel. Other gravel lies loose on the ground nearby. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
One of the conglomerate rock outcrops, called Hottah, which contains embedded streambed gravel. Other gravel lies loose on the ground nearby.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

As announced a while ago, one of the most exciting discoveries by the Curiosity rover on Mars so far has been an apparent ancient streambed which once flowed right through the landing site. Now, additional examination of the evidence confirms that it is what it seemed to be – a very old, now long-dry, riverbed.

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Mars Express celebrates ten years at Mars with new global maps

Artist's illustration of Mars Express in orbit. Credit: ESA
Artist’s illustration of Mars Express in orbit. Credit: ESA

With all of the attention that NASA’s rovers Opportunity and Curiosity have been getting, and deservedly so, we might forget sometimes that there are still other spacecraft orbiting Mars as well. NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continue to return amazing high-resolution views of the planet from orbit, but there is also the ESA’s Mars Express, a European probe which is now celebrating its tenth year in orbit and still going strong.

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Curiosity rover completes second drilling at ‘Cumberland’

The Cumberland drill hole. Like with the previous drilling, the powdered rock material is gray compared to the reddish colour on the surface. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
The Cumberland drill hole. Like with the previous drilling, the powdered rock material is gray compared to the reddish colour on the surface.
Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

After successfully coming out of solar conjunction late last month, the Curiosity rover has resumed its science activities, beginning with the second drilling into bedrock, it was reported yesterday. This location, a piece of bedrock called “Cumberland,” is only about 2.75 metres (9 feet) west of the first drill site, called “John Klein.”

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Could life exist in Venus’ atmosphere?

Venus is an extremely inhospitable world on the surface, but high up in its atmosphere, life may be able to survive. Credit: NASA / JPL
Venus is an extremely inhospitable world on the surface, but high up in its atmosphere, life may be able to survive. Credit: NASA / JPL

Venus has a reputation for being one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system, and deservedly so. Its thick carbon dioxide (and acidic) atmosphere has a crushing pressure similar to that in the deepest oceans on Earth and the scorching temperature on the surface is hot enough to melt lead. It’s like that everywhere on the planet, all the time. It has therefore been considered an extremely unlikely environment to support any kind of life. Even the toughest microbes here would find survival next to impossible. There is however a possibility, even if remote, that the upper atmosphere of this hellish world could be habitable, according to some scientists.

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